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FEMA Ignored Risk Toxic Trailers Imposed on Katrina Victims

Jul 20, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) failed to test FEMA trailers for toxic levels of formaldehyde even after the agency’s field workers warned the trailers might be linked to health problems.  FEMA’s own emails show that the agency’s lawyers rejected testing because they were afraid doing so would expose FEMA to liability if anyone living in the trailers became ill due to exposure to the toxic air. The trailers were given to as many as 120,000 displaced Gulf coast families after Hurricane Katrina.  About 60,000 families are still living in the trailers.  

The emails were revealed Thursday at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.  Upon hearing complaints from families that the trailers could be making them sick, FEMA workers along the Gulf Coast requested that the structures be tested for formaldehyde.  But FEMA lawyers told the agency to drag its feet on testing the toxic FEMA trailers.  One June 15, 2006, one FEMA lawyer advised the agency “do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. . . Once you get the results and should they indicate a problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them”.   A day later, FEMA’s Office of General Council advised an agency employee not to test the trailers because doing so “would imply FEMA’s ownership of the issue”.  Several lawmakers charged that these emails were evidence that FEMA was more interested in protecting itself legally than it was in safeguarding the health of the families it was supposed to be helping.  

Formaldehyde is a toxic invisible gas that is known to cause cancer.  It can also cause other illnesses ranging from nose bleeds to chronic bronchitis.  The chemical was used as glue in the trailers.  At least two deaths of trailer residents have been linked to formaldehyde exposure.

Three trailer residents who testified during the hearing described a myriad of health problems suffered by themselves or family members since moving into the toxic FEMA trailers.  Among the complaints, frequent nose bleeds, respiratory problems, and oral and nasal tumors.  In May, some FEMA trailer residents filed a class action lawsuit against private contractors and the federal government as the result of injuries they received while living in the toxic trailers.

FEMA Director R. David Paulson testified during the 4-hour hearing, and admitted that the testing “probably” should have started earlier.   Paulson said that the agency has received about 200 formaldehyde complaints from trailer residents, replaced 58 trailers and moved five families to rental units.  

FEMA finally tested 96 trailers last September and October.  This past May the agency said that those tests found formaldehyde levels as high as 1.2 parts per million, but that levels dropped  to 0.3 parts per million after four hours of ventilation.  FEMA claims that the lower level is an acceptable threshold according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  That contention was questioned by Mary DeVany, an occupational health and safety engineer for the Sierra Club, who said that 0.3 parts per million is 400 times greater than the year-round exposure limit set by the CDC.  It is also three times the daily exposure limit set by the National Institute on Occupational Safety.  The Sierra Club had reported in May 2006 that it found unsafe levels of formaldehyde in 30 of 32 trailers it tested.

FEMA announced yesterday that it had asked the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to conduct a new assessment of the long-term affects of trailer living.  In addition to testing air samples from the trailers, the CDC will also interview residents. The study will focus on air quality issues and exposure.


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